By the year 1808 the French army had successively eliminated Austria, Prussia and Russia as military opponents and France dominated the great majority of continental Europe. Britain alone had withstood French power, achieving security against invasion through Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.
The beginnings of the Peninsular War had begun the previous autumn when Napoleon moved a large military force into Spain, ostensibly to support his invasion of the country but really to depose the existing Spanish monarch and place his own brother, Joseph, on the throne. With this action, the Emperor arguably sowed the seeds of his eventual defeat and abdication, for although the ensuing Spanish uprising must have been expected, Napoleon failed to see that the revolt could never be completely suppressed. By usurping the Spanish throne he created a new enemy for France and a new ally for Britain.
In August 1808 an expeditionary force landed at the mouth of the Mondego river in Portugal under the command of Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Wellesley, better known to most of us as the Duke of Wellington. Wellington moved south towards Lisbon and defeated the French first at Roliça and then at Vimeiro, where Napoleonic offensive tactics failed for the first time against the British infantry line.
The Battle of Vimeiro
Wellesley was seen as a successful general but he was not to stay in Portugal. After signing a controversial agreement with France called the Convention of Sintra, he was ordered home and Sir John Moore was left in command of a British army of 30,000. The scale of the war in the Peninsula escalated when Napoleon himself arrived in Spain in July 1808 at the head of 200,000 veteran troops. Moore was forced to retreat westwards. The retreat ended in the evacuation by sea of Moore's army at La Coruña in January 1809, and in the loss of Moore's own life. Meanwhile Napoleon transferred his command to General Soult and returned to Paris, never again to lead an army in the Peninsula.
It was clear that Wellesley was needed back in Portugal and he returned in April 1809 to assume command of the British-Portuguese forces. The next few years saw a patchwork of victories and retreats, the British forces gaining victories at Porto and Talavera, for instance, but then forced to fall back and construct a deep, defensive system to protect Lisbon called the Lines of Torres Vedras. The fortunes of each army see-sawed back and forth, the British forces fighting in different parts of the Peninsula under different generals. The turning point of the war came in 1811 when on 5th March, Wellington was able to push General Masséna out of Portugal at Barrosa and another British general, Beresford, forced Soult to retreat at Albuera on 16th May. Throughout the latter months of 1811, French armies continued to threaten Wellington but never again caught him at a disadvantage.
Wellington now began to advance through Spain. Ciudad Rodrigo fell on 19th January, 1812, followed by Badajoz on 6th April. Wellington's ability to push eastwards in the face of an enemy that was numerically far superior was made possible by Spanish regular and guerrilla forces pinning down French armies elsewhere in Spain. French communications and supplies were severely tested and their units frequently isolated, harassed, or overwhelmed by partisans.
On 17th June, Wellington entered Salamanca with only Marmont's army in the vicinity. The two armies shadowed each other over the next few weeks until Marmont attempted to out-flank Wellington on 22nd July. Wellington seized the opportunity to attack and in the ensuing Battle of Salamanca won a crushing victory. Events moved further in Wellington's favour over the winter of 1812/1813. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in June 1812 had ended in disaster and he was unable to spare fresh troops for the Peninsula. At the same time reinforcements continued to be fed into Wellington's army. In May 1813 Wellington struck northwards towards Burgos, outflanking the French by wheeling through the mountains to the north.
The Battle of Vitoria
This is where Gabriel Claremont and his brother, Jonathan, in Love’s Tangle find themselves on different sides of a mountain pass. For one it means life, for the other death. In the novel Gabriel loses his brother in the Battle of Vitoria, while the father of Lizzie Ingram in The Major’s Guarded Heart survives to return eventually to England. In real life the French were routed on 21 June.
Wellington directs his troops during the Battle of Vitoria
Vitoria essentially sealed Napoleon's fate. It was the last major battle against his forces in Spain and opened the way for the British to invade France. News of Wellington's victory also rallied the Prussian-Russian alliance and contributed towards Austria's decision in August to re-enter the war against France. On 7th October Wellington crossed the Bidassoa and brought the fighting into France. In the meantime, the continental allies were closing in on the French border from the east following victories at Dennewitz in September and Leipzig in October.The last battle of the Peninsular War was fought on 10th April, 1814, at Calvinet Ridge overlooking the city of Toulouse. On 12th April, news reached Wellington of Napoleon's abdication. After six years, the Peninsular War was over.
Map of Peninsular War Battles